11th MEU battles anti-Iraqi forces in An Najaf

11 Aug 2004 | Gunnery Sgt. Chago Zapata

The first four days of the battle of Najaf, between 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) forces and the Muqtada Militia, started here in the early morning darkness well before dawn, Aug. 5.

A large number of aggressors, later confirmed to be members of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Muqtada Militia, attacked the city of Najaf's main police station at 1 a.m. and were quickly repelled by the Iraqi police.  Later, at 3 a.m., they attacked again, this time with heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.

Iraqi National Guardsmen from the 405th Battalion, 50th Iraqi Brigade, were notified and arrived on the scene and helped the IPs successfully defended the station from the Anti-Iraqi Forces. 

At this point, the governor of An Najaf province decided to send an urgent message to the 11th MEU requesting their assistance.  A quick reaction force from the MEU was dispatched.

"Attacking local police, whose sole job is to maintain peace in Najaf and keep its citizens safe, is another demonstration of the Muqtada Militia's disregard for the people of the city, and their desire to prevent a free and prosperous Iraq," said Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer, 11th MEU (SOC).

When the Marine Quick Reaction Force arrived, the AIF had withdrawn into the city's exclusion zone.  The Marines didn't fire a single shot.

At around 8 a.m. that same morning, it was confirmed that enemy forces were massing near the police station yet again, this time with larger numbers than before.

Marines of the 11th MEU were called in and the battle resumed, this time with the Marines in the thick of it.

"We did not pick this fight. We were down there assisting our partners, who are the Iraqi police and the Iraqi National Guard and of course the governor of Najaf," said Lieutenant Col. John L. Mayer, commanding officer, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th MEU (SOC).  "We were asked to assist on behalf of the governor of Najaf, and our motto is 'No better friend, no worst enemy' and the Iraqi police have been our friends since the liberation.

"When they attacked it's like attacking a United States Marine. So we went down there to assist in a battle we did not ask for, but one which we were not going to run away from either," Mayer continued.

Joint Marine, ING and IP forces repelled the AIF from the police station and, forced to flee, they took shelter in the sacred Wadi Al Salam cemetery where they had previously established a base of operations.

The ancient cemetery, riddled with multi-story, mausoleum-like buildings, tombs, catacombs and caves was a perfect sanctuary.  The five-kilometer long, three-kilometer wide burial ground, surrounded by walls roughly built of brick and mortar, provided countless of places for the enemy to hide and cache their weapons for later use.

A spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr claims the Marines broke the cease-fire agreement reached in June between coalition forces and his militia, as brokered by the Governor of Najaf, local civic and religious leaders.  The agreement also included the creation of an exclusion zone for coalition forces around the holy Imam Ali Shrine and the neighboring cemetery.

Once the agreement was reached, however, Sadr's forces immediately began using the ancient sacred graveyard as a base of operations against coalition and Iraqi security forces.  They took advantage of its sanctuary to stage large weapons caches and began a terrorist campaign, kidnapping, torturing and killing Iraqi policemen and civilians.

Despite their hypocritical claims, the facts speak for themselves; Sadr's forces broke the agreement with their unprovoked attacks on the Iraqi police station.

Over the next two days, Marine and Iraqi security forces, with jets and helicopters swarming the air and armored vehicles racing to engage the enemy, continued to push into the cemetery, digging the enemy out of their holes and crushing them with deadly and accurate fire.  At this point, the tally of enemy dead reached 300 and mounting.

"The cemetery is now a field of terror in the city," said Najaf's governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, of the militia's hijacking of the holy site, at a briefing. "This operation will never stop before all the militia leave the city."

The huge cemetery, however, was not cleared without a price.  The two-day engagement claimed the lives of four U.S. Marines.

"The price of this fight was high," said Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th MEU (SOC).  "Every Marine fought bravely in the field of battle and represents what's best in America and in the United States Marine Corps.

"Let the AIF clearly understand that 11th MEU Marines and Iraqi Security Forces will not allow them to seek sanctuary and hijack this holy cemetery from the people of Iraq,” said Haslam.  “We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations.  There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf."

In the early hours of the third day of fighting, as sooty black smoke continued to billow lazily over the strife torn city, the Governor of Najaf requested for Marine and Iraqi security forces to continue to conduct raids against suspected AIF positions.

As the day progressed, the militia continued to apply the same tactics, and launched attacks from the cemetery and surrounding areas, only to immediately run back and seek sanctuary in the cemetery, mosques and buildings surrounding the Imam Ali Shrine.

Now, however, an overwhelming surprise was waiting for them as the 11th MEU was augmented by a reinforced U.S. Army infantry battalion, and a U.S. Army helicopter battalion.

Later that morning, elements of that reinforced Army battalion, Task Force 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, began a sweep of the cemetery encountering sporadic resistance and finding yet more weapons caches.

Throughout the rest of the day and into the next, sporadic enemy attacks were rebuffed as joint coalition, Iraqi forces continued to hunt down and destroy the enemy.

Also early on the morning of the fourth day, a Marine unit was ambushed by AIF on its way back to Forward Operating Base Hotel from a recent mission, but the Marines punched through and made it back unscathed.  Their vehicles, however, would need to be touched up a bit.

Najaf, one of the holiest cities of Shi'ite Islam, the resting place of Imam Ali, murdered in Kufa in 661, was the center of the attention during the past four conflict-filled days.

The world watched with bated breath, as its streets lay clogged with debris, its holy cemetery desecrated, damaged and smoking by the acts of Anti-Iraqi Forces, which continue to fight against the rule of law and order and do nothing but hurt the people of Iraq.

Marine Corps News

Colonel James W. Lively
Commanding Officer

Colonel Lively is a native of Dallas, Texas. He received his commission in 1996 through the Platoon Leaders Course program after graduating from Texas A&M University with a BA in Psychology.

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Lieutenant Col. Le E. Nolan
Executive Officer

Lieutenant Colonel Nolan is a 2001 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and received his commission through Officer Candidate Class 180. After completing flight training as a CH-53E pilot, he reported to HMH-361 in MCAS Miramar.

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Sergeant Major Travis L. DeBarr
Sergeant Major

Sergeant Major DeBarr enlisted in the Marine Corps and reported to MCRD San Diego, CA, for recruit training in October 1994.

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11th Marine Expeditionary Unit